Sleep to Die For

Consistent, restorative sleep has eluded me for over 20 years.  Therefore, an image so often talked about in the New Testament – falling asleep in Christ – has come as an unexpected comfort.

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.”

Victor Hugo

“That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all-natural graces, sleep.”

Aldous Huxley

grandma driving“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandma.

Not yelling and screaming, like the people in her car.”

Anonymous

 

I love to sleep but for the last 20 years consistent, sound sleep has remained tantalizingly out of reach. So desperate for sleep at times I have found myself looking on with envy at homeless folks asleep on benches. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, I immediately discussed sleep with my oncologist.  I assumed that cancer worries along with cancer treatment would be the end of sleep for good.

Sleeplessness in any degree is one of humanity’s great annoyances. Internet searches (not good sleep hygiene to do at night) are endless in describing and suggesting ways to recover our bodies’ routine and therapeutic need for the sandman’s nightly visits. Why he refuses to come and satisfy some of us is anybody’s guess. But for sure we cannot do well emotionally or physically without sleep.  Twenty years of insomnia has left me wanting to strangle the sandman.  Going for stretches without sustaining sleep has at times been as emotionally painful as my struggle with metastatic cancer.

Worrying about endings

A few people with metastatic cancer might not entertain thoughts about how dying might go for them.  I am not one of them.  Like the confession of the late Billy Graham, I too am not afraid to die as I have confidence in Christ receiving me, but I do worry sometimes about how I may die. I am like most people who would vote to die unsuspectingly at an incredibly old age at the end of a productive, meaningful life while SLEEPING!

To Fall Asleep in Christ

I recently landed on a book, Dying Well, by John Wyatt.  The author, a British medical consultant and devout Christian, has witnessed many people in the last stage of their lives and offers insightful, encouraging, and very practical suggestions for believers facing death from illness or old age. This book is for anybody who is eventually going to die. Yes, we all should push the pause button of our busy lives to think how we would like our endings to go before the end is close.

Wyatt’s chapter describing what it means to “fall to sleep in Christ” was particularly comforting.  To “fall asleep in Christ” is the term used in the epistles for the believers’ death.  Jesus in the gospels and the apostle Paul in his letters describe the death of a believer as residing in a state of sleep awaiting their new eternal life. The early Christians understood something about this image of death. It is one of the reasons they had the courage and hope to withstand all manners of persecution and death.  At death, the believer is, as in sleep, unconscious and unresponsive but none the less a person fully alive, being held safely by the love and power of Christ.

I have known the biblical expression for believers’ death for decades but never has the term meant so much to me as it does now; nor has it provided such hope and reassurance as it does now.  Falling asleep in Christ to be woken up to the most glorious reality of all is my great hope and desire.   I love sleep, I long for it and when I awake having had a good night of sleeping, I am exhilarated.  So now as the pesky death and dying thoughts resurface so does the gentleness of the sleep metaphor. Is this pie in the sky thinking to make the reality of dying easier to swallow?  No and yes!   No, it is not the pie in the sky.  The truths of scripture and God’s love for me did not originate with me and will not end with me.  And yes, life after death has been the great Christian hope for people from all over the world for centuries.  As Paul said, “if only in this life we have hope in Christ we of all people are to be most pitied.”   (I Cor 15:19) According to John Wyatt, we can deduct from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 that “Jesus experienced the full reality of death so that we might fall asleep,” never having to know abandonment from God’s loving presence. Hallelujah!  My imagination has taken a turn from the dreaded to the blessed! Falling asleep in Christ means resting in peace to be woken up by the lover of our souls at the culmination of history.

“Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name.”

Chronicles of Narnia , C.S. Lewis

DEATH VERSES TO FALL ASLEEP BY:

MATTHEW 9:24

JOHN 11:11

ACTS 7:59-60

JOHN 11:25-26

I THESSALONIANS 4:13-14

ISAIAH 26:19

PSALM 17:15

PSALM 16:9-11

PSALM 139:17-18

REVELATION 22: 3-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stories that have nothing to do with cancer

Cancer metastasis tempts me to see all of life and relationships pivoting around the cancer diagnosis. If I’m not careful cancer becomes the only lens from which life is observed. It’s clearly understandable. Cancer demands attention. But as it turns out there is so much to life that cuts into the self-absorbed cancer life.

Story telling

I love stories; especially the real-life ones.
I love telling stories and not just stories about me and mine.
I love other people’s stories and draw awe, inspiration, humor, human pathos, delight and enjoyment from them as if they were mine.
I just don’t enjoy stories; I absolutely need them to keep me grounded and connected to people and to God.
Heroism, desperate need met by extraordinary compassion, grit and human feats of endurance, discovery, invention, sacrifice, visions, dreams, revelations and miracles are stories that I will tell if I have been privileged to know of them. I tell many, many, many stories.

A story of dear friends
india to usaAudra and Jeremy are adopting a Down syndrome 19-month-old – nicknamed Hank – who is in an orphanage in India. They have never adopted or fostered. Audra has never been in a foreign country other than Canada (that doesn’t count), but she could not be more fearless, committed and excited. Passionate love has taken hold of her. Before she was dissuaded by the adoption agency Audra was determined to foster Hank in India for 3 to 4 months until the last court hearing and all documents were in place for her to bring him home. Audra and Jeremy were undaunted by obstacles; even the challenges of leaving her other three children in the care of Jeremy, the Dad. This couple was propelled by extraordinary and extravagant love. They only knew love’s longing to take Hank out of the orphanage, care for him, and ultimately bring him home to be part of his new family and church community; each which await his arrival with joy and anticipation.

The Bad Math of Jesus

God as shepherd and us as his flock is a common motif in the Bible for describing God’s love and devotion for us.

This parable is one of my favorites for describing the extravagant love of God towards his children.

Matthew 18:12-14

Jesus said, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them Jesus_the_Shepherd004wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

So, what is the big idea in this story? The extravagant love of Christ can look foolish, indulgent, and possibly even irresponsible at times.

Phillip Yancey has called this the ‘atrocious math’ of Jesus.

The shepherd leaves the 99 on a hill, not in a sheep pen or in the care of another shepherd. No! He leaves them on a hill, vulnerable and unprotected so that he can seek after the one sheep that has wandered away.

Does the shepherd not care about the 99 because his favorite sheep, Fluffy, is the one who wandered off? Of course not. There are no favorite sheep in this story. There’s no Fluffy or Nemo or Benji because this is not a story about animals. No one sheep is the hero in this story. The only hero is the shepherd who wants his sheep, all his sheep, home with him. And he will put himself and the other obedient 99 at risk in order to go after one foolish and wayward sheep to bring her home. The extravagant, sacrificial love of God is the big story here.

Audra and Jeremy’s love for a disabled child is today’s big story for me. But this love is extravagant and some including myself had wondered whether it is too extravagant. Extravagant, sacrificial love motivated by Jesus’s spirit and example is only thing that can explain it. And Audra and Jeremy would agree. They see it as a calling given by God of which they are delighted to follow for the rest of their lives.

Be inspired but more importantly respond to the calling of God to bring you home. And when you do don’t forget to be grateful and thank Him that his heart is bigger than his numerical calculations.

Name Your Tumor

Being known by name is significant and a comfort in the midst of difficulty.

Naming tumors is a real thing. And I don’t mean naming the specific type of cancer. No, these are pet names. Arnold, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, and disliked politicians are common tags assigned by cancer patients. Most people report that naming their tumor is an empowering exercise allowing them to wrestle back a little control from a bully.

Unfortunately for me, I would need a baby naming book in order to find names for all the little tumors that are floating around. Fortunately, I’m not attracted to the name-your-tumor game but I’m not judging those who are. Whatever helps cancer patients not feel so helpless is probably a good thing.

But I’m intrigued by the need to name a thing or person.  Assigning names, being referred to by names, labeling objects by names, Hello_my_name_is_sticker.svgand finding meaning in names fosters connection and intimacy to each other, our environment, and, apparently, our diseases. The importance of naming is found in both Testaments. Being named, having a name carries spiritual significance. God revealed his name to Moses.  Jesus was named Immanuel, ‘God with us.”  Both Peter and Paul were renamed by Jesus.

When I was first married, I complained to my husband that I wanted to hear my name spoken by him more often. Hearing my name by my beloved made me feel special to him and more connected. It capped off the special relationship we shared. No doubt he was initially perplexed by this marital complaint but happy to accommodate.

The following verses in the gospel of John at Christ’s resurrection are exceedingly meaningful and tender to me (emphasis mine):

John 20:15-16
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means ‘Teacher’).

Imagine her relief, her love, her comfort to hear her name spoken by the Lord at such a time.  It’s an image that carries me through this harrowing medical ordeal. Imagining the Lord of the universe saying,

Dona, I’m here with you.”
Dona, I’ve got this, don’t be afraid.”
Dona, you will be with me forever.”

I don’t feel a need to name a tumor or tumors to feel more empowered or in control. He knows and calls me by my name. That is enough. That is everything.

Intimate News

I made an unusual request of my oncology team. I told them that when I returned the following week to hear the results of the radiologist report and the status of cancer progression, I wanted them to tell David first. I would be in the waiting room to hear from him. He Patient to doctorwould sit with me and go over the results.  We might pray together, then we would go the clinic room together to have the results further explained by the team and have our questions answered.

Weird, cowardly, childish, weak, faithless, avoidant, dramatic, insensitive to my husband by putting him in this position? All those descriptors passed through my mind as the day approached. On the actual day, I decided to forget the elaborate scheme and face up to the news without preamble. But my husband gave me a word picture that took away the shame.

“Dona, you are going to have to eat the whole sandwich (the radiologist’s report) at some point but how you want it presented – open-faced, garnished, toasted – is completely up to you. You’re the one going through this. Do it the way that makes it most tolerable.”

And my team completely understood, or at least acted like they did.  As my lead doctor said,

“Dona is the one with cancer, not me.  We do it her way.”

Intimacy

So, what was going on, aside from fear? It is intimacy and trust – intimate knowledge coming through my most trusted person. I wanted news from the person whose life would be most affected by this personal and significant information and from the person who knows me better and loves me more than any other.

An example from a long-ago happy event:
Who was the first person I told when i discovered I was pregnant? Life changing information that only made sense to share with the person most invested in our lives together. And whose lives would change dramatically as a result? Mine and his.
Again, intimate personal information shared within the most intimate of relationships. It’s really (in my mind) not so different from news about a disease notorious for causing pain, disability and death. I wanted to hear it from my husband no matter what it was.
But fortunately, intimacy doesn’t stop there.

Intimacy with God

David’s intimate relationship with God was ultimately what I was counting on in anticipation of hearing news related to my survival. If the scan and test results were disappointing, then I trusted David to tell me the facts along with the crucial caveats and realistic encouragements that would calm my fears and reorient me once again to the hope I profess in Jesus in all and every circumstance of life. I imagined praying together in those moments – intimacy with God would always and forever be at the heart of my life’s purpose and hope, even in life’s major disappointments.

The obvious

What if there was no husband or one that was willing to participate in my plan? Or what if there wasn’t a substitute like a trusted pastor or friend who could lead me to “the shepherd of my soul”?  Would I have fallen apart? Fallen into a pit of despair of which I couldn’t climb out?

I don’t imagine so. And here’s why:  Betsy Ten Boom who died at Ravensbrück for her participation in hiding Dutch Jews during WW2 said,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

I cling to that with gratitude.

Thankful Postscript
My test results were encouraging: “Skeletal cancer stable, metastatic liver disease showed marked improvement.”

Of course, this begs the question, would I write this same post if the news was not good? I hope so, I pray so. Again,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”


 





 

 

Guest Post: I Gave Her Bad Advice

The following post is from my husband, David.

Can a positive attitude affect breast cancer survival? No. It can even hurt.

Since we learned that Dona’s cancer had returned and spread, I have encouraged her to stay positive, think positive, be optimistic. I told her studies have shown that a positive attitude is linked to survival. img_3576

As it turns out, I was wrong. I was giving her bad advice; advice that was not just unhelpful but potentially harmful.

A 9-year study of nearly 1100 cancer patients by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found no relationship between positive outlook and cancer progression and death. At least two additional well designed and implemented studies support these findings. Based on what researchers know now about how cancer starts and grows, there’s no reason to believe that negative emotions can cause cancer or help it grow.

1561447518-optimism-nzc83trq1-87901-500-425

Not always the best plan

And, as I learned, encouraging a cancer sufferer to stay positive can be anti-therapeutic. It can hurt, particularly when the ‘encourager’ links positive outlook to longevity, like I did.  I placed an additional burden on Dona, who has enough on her plate managing fear, side-effects, and me. Although she never said so, I was likely creating guilt and discouragement during the times she was unable to muster up a positive attitude.

But the impulse is natural. We want to believe that we have the will-power to control the outcomes of a serious illnesses.

Moreover, amongst Christians, we link healing to faith. On the extreme end, the ‘health-and-wealth gospel’ purveyors contend that healing can only come from the certainty of our belief in God’s promise of physical well-being. Without knowing, I may have been playing in to this.

Do I believe that God can heal Dona miraculously? Yes, I’m praying He will. Do I believe He must heal if she or I have unwavering faith? I can’t convince myself that is true. God can heal anyone, anytime, with or without my faith. Linking the certainty of my faith directly and solely to healing places too much burden and power on me. But at the same time, I’m reminded that Jesus told us to believe that we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer (Mark 11:22-24; Matthew 21:19-22). I’m asking Jesus to take my mustard seed of faith and use it however He wants. (Matthew 17:20) If this sounds like I’m waffling, I am. Looking at my own weakness, I take comfort in the father who asked Jesus to heal his child who was afflicted with terrible seizures. He told Jesus, “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.” (Mark 9:21-29)

And then, almost a companion piece to the name-it-and-claim-it Christians is the typical American temperament which ignores mortality and promotes self-determination.

“Fix it, avoid it, or fight it. It is entirely within your control. You can prevail!”
“Cancer won’t win. Just believe you are going to beat it! Be a fighter!”

Dona hates the term, ‘she was a fighter’. She asks, “What’s the corollary for someone who dies of cancer? She was a loser?”

The way forward

Dona is not at death’s door. She has a cancer that is not curable, but it is treatable. She is getting the best treatments for the best possible outcome.

But delusional optimism, that positive thinking will control cancer, is, well,  delusional. Living with hope, however, is essential.  Author and pastor, Tim Keller says,

“The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future.”

Our pastor, Steve Schenk, told us in a recent sermon:

“Despair is believing there is no way forward. Hope, for the sufferer, is believing there is a path forward.”

How does Dona see a way forward in hope with metastatic cancer? She combines deep theology with practical behavior. To date, I have watched her employ over a dozen different techniques in constructing a path ahead. I would like to list them, but Dona nixed that. She reasons that, one, it would make this post over 2000 words and, two, it places undo emphasis on her behavior.  Fair enough.

But I will write that her efforts, habits, and musings promote hope and joy. And experiencing joy where we can find it has been one of our objectives since we started this journey.  Joy, as we Christians know it, has less to do with our circumstances and more to do with a settled assurance that God knows our condition and that nothing: cancer, grief or even death itself, can separate us from his love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So, how can I help Dona? I asked her and she told me,

“Pray for me, read scripture to me, point me to the reason for my existence, remind me that this reality is not the only reality, and have fun with me. And do these again and again and again and again.”